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Mogwai: Living With The Gravity Of 'Atomic'

Friday, 15 April 2016 Written by Jonathan Rimmer

Photo: Brian Sweeney

Mogwai remain in a somewhat unique position; labelled as elder statesmen of a genre that they’ve often renounced. The influence of their colossal debut, ‘Young Team’, has been enduring, triggering dozens of the floppy-haired, crescendo-based, four-chord-a-minute post-rock bands that emerged in the mid-2000s.

In 2016, the style is all but dead. But Mogwai’s 20-year retrospective, ‘Central Belters’, released last year, served as a further reminder that they’ve never been ones to follow the ebbs and flows of the tide. Real innovators evolve, and the Glasgow band have frequently surprised, or even misled, listeners with their musical direction.

Connect the dots and a pattern develops: ‘Rock Action’ was a muted project, ‘Happy Songs For Happy People’ was relentlessly melancholic and an early slowcore compilation was called ‘Ten Rapid’. The band’s sense of humour, though, has always been accompanied by a breathtaking cinematic quality. There’s certainly nothing funny about the Mogwai’s latest release, ‘Atomic’, an instrumental score for a chilling documentary focusing on the nuclear age: Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise.

“We were asked to be a part of it even before they decided Mark Cousins would direct it,” multi-instrumentalist Barry Burns said. “They must have had us in mind when the project was at the earliest stages. It’s something we’re interested in, especially having been to Hiroshima to see the museum and sense the gravity of it all. The lack of a narrator [in the film] gave us plenty of breathing space and the music seems to help move the story onwards.”

The fact that the band were immediately identified as ideal candidates for such a project is telling. When it comes to conveying fear and widespread unease, nobody is as powerful as Mogwai, and the album is equally as transporting as a stand-alone listen.

Recorded in only 12 days, ‘Atomic’ is astonishingly evocative. Though it possesses the unmistakable dynamic traits of a Mogwai record, it captivates in a more ominous, impersonal manner. Tracks like U-235 are primarily built on icy synthesisers and repetitive basslines as opposed to the band’s signature guitar meanderings.

“There’s definitely fewer guitar parts,” Burns added. “I suppose the feeling of the subject matter somehow evokes a wonky synthesizer palette. No idea why that is, but it seems to fit better. We didn’t see much of the film to write to, just the mood or feeling of the section. Does the creative process differ for a film? Not that much. Mogwai is singular writers who get together to play each other’s songs and this was no different. We just have a bunch of small ideas that are expanded upon, given some direction of the mood of the particular scene or series of images. In the case of the albums, we just pick the better ones and expand upon them.”

Although their writing process hasn’t changed, Mogwai’s evolution challenges the notion that an old dog can’t learn new tricks. As well as incorporating electronics into their sound, the band recently bid adieu to long-time guitarist John Cummings. His departure, which followed the band’s soon-to-be legendary Barrowlands anniversary shows last year, marked the end of an era. But Burns seems adamant that they’ll continue producing music for as long as possible.

“I doubt I could enjoy another job as much, not to get too soppy,” he said. “We’re pretty adaptable as a band and it’s always, always fun. It doesn’t feel different [after John leaving] but that might be because we’ve only played three or four shows with someone else on guitar, not a full tour. We’ll no doubt get some help on guitar for the next tour, but not much for ‘Atomic’ due to the way it has been written.

“It comes down to the amount of work you are willing to put in and also the enthusiasm you have for it. Of course, it’s only natural to get sporadically sick of your own songs, so you always want to increase the amount of songs you can play and it’s just fun to make up music anyway.”

Even if post-rock is dead, Mogwai are still alive and kicking. The band are planning a “good few shows” touring ‘Atomic’ this year, including two nights at the Edinburgh Playhouse, as part of the city’s International Festival, and dates at Coventry Cathedral and the Barbican in London, and you can guarantee that they’ll be planning to subvert people’s expectations yet again.

“Can the label post-rock be laid to rest? I don’t know too many post-rock bands on a personal level because we’ve always tried to tour with bands that sound nothing like us,” Burns said. “I can’t comment on whether they are twee bedroom dwellers or dangerous cocaine enthusiasts. As for what’s on the agenda next for us, I think maybe we’ll record a new album near the end of this year. The demos are kind of written already. They just need a good kick into shape and deleted if they’re rotten.”

'Atomic' is out now on Rock Action.

Mogwai Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Sat August 27 2016 - EDINBURGH Playhouse
Sun August 28 2016 - EDINBURGH Playhouse
Wed September 14 2016 - COVENTRY Cathedral
Thu September 15 2016 - LONDON Barbican Centre

Click here to compare & buy Mogwai Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

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